Guilt and Grief During the Holiday Season

Holidays and Special Days / Holidays and Special Days : Eleanor Haley

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I’ve been feeling a little distracted this holiday season.  Maybe a little stressed.  Maybe a little numb.  I’m not feeling it like I want to feel it - not the tingle I sometimes get when I hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing ‘Oh Holy Night’ or the warm and fuzzy feeling of snuggling under ten blankets to watch old Christmas specials.

Am I feeling grinchy? Not exactly, but I’m not filled with Christmas cheer either. I’m just blah, and as we've explained in past posts, feeling nothing actually feels pretty bad. 

Honestly, I feel guilty about feeling blah this time of year. I feel bad that I haven't lived every holiday moment to the fullest, and I feel sad to let one of my favorite times of year pass me by. And, more than anything, I feel ashamed that I haven't given my kids the best holiday season ever! Because every holiday season needs to be the best one ever!

I've never associated the holiday season with feelings of guilt in the past. Some of you may be surprised to hear this because you always feel guilt around the holidays. Or, your grief has caused feelings of holiday guilt because of the following: 

"I feel bad that…"

  • I can’t afford to buy as many gifts as in the past
  • …I can’t muster up the energy to do this holiday activity or that
  • …I can’t bring myself to carry on a certain tradition
  • …I can’t stop crying
  • ...I'm feeling too raw to do anything meaningful in honor of my loved one
  • …I don’t want to send holiday cards
  • …I’m not up for the holiday parties
  • …I can’t listen to holiday music
  • …I feel like skipping the holiday season altogether

And the list goes on. Turns out, guilt, shame, self-on-self disappointment - they are part and parcel of experiencing grief during the holiday season.

As I've established, I'm a prime offender, so I won't tell you not to feel guilty. However, I will propose a few hypothetical reasons why you should cut yourself some slack.

First, you ought to give yourself a break.

We’ve said it once, we’ll say it a hundred more times - if you’re grieving and still getting out of bed, putting on clothes, showering occasionally, and eating, then you’re doing something.  You're coping with whatever primary loss you experienced and then all the secondary losses that followed. This is stressful and takes a lot out of you physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Second, there's no reason to compare.

I realize you may be feeling pressured by the ghost of holidays past to be the same as you were before the loss, but it’s really not fair to compare yourself to this person because things have changed. It’s also not fair to compare yourself to other people who seem to be having a splendid holiday.  First of all, who knows what’s really going on with anyone else regardless of how picture perfect their holiday card appears. Second, many others haven’t faced the same kinds of challenges that you have this year and aren't dealing with grief during the holiday season.

Third, you're not a Grinch simply because you're not that into it.

As we wrote in our post defending the "holiday villain":

“I’m sure there are a handful of holiday villains who are truly cold at heart, but more than likely the disheveled woman standing in the corner at the office holiday party is not; nor is the friend who does not want to participate in the Secret Santa Gift Exchange or the child who doesn’t enthusiastically shout-sing Jingle Bells at the holiday recital.  Give these people the benefit of the doubt before you typecast them as bad because there’s a good chance they’re good people who’ve had a bad year.

Fourth, people probably aren't as disappointed in you as you think.

People often tell themselves stories about who they are and how they relate to others. Sometimes these stories are accurate and sometimes they are based on subjective assumptions.  So, a person may tell themselves things like:  

"I’m no fun, everyone is watching me, I’m not wanted here, this was a pity invite, I’m a third wheel, people are disappointed in me, people don’t care, I have no one, etc" 

Though I'm sure there are times when these things are true, there are also times when these thoughts are exaggerations or manifestations of a person's internal fears and anxieties.  So, if you find yourself thinking this way, we encourage you to really stop and ask yourself, "What evidence do I have to support this belief? How do I know it's true?" 


Fifth, there will be another holiday season next year.

Here’s the thing about the holidays – and you can look at this as good news or bad – they happen every year. I know it might not seem this way right now, but you are not sentenced to a life of bad holiday seasons. 

So please, take this holiday season for what it is - one bad, sad, disappointing holiday season. If you skipped an important tradition and it made you sad, if you skipped the holidays altogether, if you wish you had done more to honor and remember your loved one, or whatever other disappointment or guilty thought your grappling with - remember that next year you can take small steps (or big steps if you prefer) to do things differently.

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23 Comments on "Guilt and Grief During the Holiday Season"

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  1. Chriselda Cantu  January 3, 2022 at 3:35 pm Reply

    Hi, my husband committed suicide on March 16, 2021 in my garage. We weren’t having problems but a lot of drugs were found on his system. The toxicology report revealed that. We were not aware of that. He was kind and very patient with us. Everyone left me after funeral. I’m 60 years old. I have two grown sons and both blame me because to them I was bossy. Someone had to discipline,
    I never spanked, I just took items they were in love with. That’s why they both hate me and refuse to allow me to see my grandchildren. I’m alone, no one communicates with me. I had my first Christmas Eve, Christmas day and New years eve in my bedroom all alone. I’m extremely depressed. I did talk to someone professional but he says I’m suffering from a severe depression since I was the one that found him hanging. That image will stay with me forever. I lost my house. I’m renting on a fixed income. I can barely make it financially. I’m upset with my husband for taking the coward way out but I love and miss him a lot. We were married 38 years. He was the one that made the money, I didn’t. That’s why I had to sell the house. My proceeds were under 60,000. We owed most all the house. I don’t want to give up. But I feel everyone is tired of listening to my sad story. I don’t want pitty, I just want to live and be happy again. My son’s and grandchildren adored him. Obviously they didn’t adore me. someone out there please give me advise to go forward. Please! I’m losing hope.

  2. Helen Hieb  December 4, 2019 at 10:30 am Reply

    The alternative guilt not mentioned in this article is feeling relieved that this person is no longer sharing the holidays with you or your family because they made it hard. How can I feel this way when he died? My husband made holidays hard for the whole family by not being present with us. We walked on egg shells around him until we determined his mood so we could adjust ourselves to match that mood. We changed ourselves to keep the calm because when he was angry, it was bad. Now it’s lighter, more fun, less stress, more easy going. But the guilt that brings up feeling that way is horrible.

  3. andreewrussell  April 11, 2019 at 5:20 am Reply

    Awesome Ideas for a advanced planning for a gift. Thank you for sharing. Keep Posting such an informative blog!!

  4. Michelle Davis  January 25, 2019 at 4:59 am Reply

    Its really an informative blog. I feel guilt of not giving gift to my lovely mom on this new year. But as described above I will give some beautiful gift to my mom on next new year.

  5. Kathleen Craig  January 6, 2019 at 12:51 pm Reply

    This was my first holiday season – it does seem like it goes on forever – since my husband of 40+ years died in June. What a journey. I usually look forward to decorating and love looking at the lights on my tree. In fact, today is Jan 6 and my tree is still up. It is comforting to me to look at it. The really hard part has been waking up each day knowing he is gone and that I can no longer visit him in the nursing home, hold hands and just have quiet conversations about what is going on in my life. I really miss that! What has also been very challenging – really difficult – is the absence of people reaching out to me as if the “worst” is over in their eyes. I have a few good listeners in my life but most of my close friends have husbands and maybe kids at home so are full up with holiday stuff. I am checking into a grief support group through the hospice organization that entered my husband’s life at the end. I really just need to hang out with other folks and talk without an overbearing “expert” in the room. Anyone else feel this way? Anyway, today is a new moon in a new year. I hope all of us find peace and happiness in whatever way is meaningful.

    • katherine  January 8, 2019 at 12:46 pm Reply

      Yes, that sense that everyone else has moved on, and that they seem to assume that my sorrow is in the past. This has gotten harder for me as time has gone by. My mom passed away just over a year ago, on January 3rd.. Having the holidays happen without her seemed impossible. I’m an only child and my dad left us when I was 3……my mom was amazing and strong and our Christmases we’re the best part of the year.

      I have found just a few friends that I can count on to know that my heart is still filled with sorrow. And I have tried to find ways to protect my heart for the inevitable encounters with all of those who — naturally I suppose — will not have a clue where I’m at.

      I wish you much peace and much kindness on your journey Kathleen.

  6. Candi carl  December 29, 2018 at 1:49 pm Reply

    I also lost my 23year old son this year and the holidays were so hard. We decorated and celebrated Christmas this year because I have a daughter and son in law and it would not be fair to them if I did not. I find it hard talking about my son because people start looking like they feel uncomfortable so I usually stop. I don’t like the look people give me . I know it is because they do not know what to say but I find it sad. I find comfort in talking to others that have lost loved ones because I know they understand the pain and the need for their memories to live on.

  7. Vartan Agnerian  December 28, 2018 at 3:59 pm Reply

    So appeasing and calming to read all the above heartfelt writings’ I found something I can relate to’ that no one in my family – friend circle can understand or that I can share my grief with … I recently became a widow’ after 44 years of that old fashioned type ‘romantic marriage’ … My beloved husband died of aspiration pneumonia due to last stage Parkinson’s ‘ Our anniversary date is December 22 … I so identify with the guilt’ remorse’ disappointment in myself ‘ so grateful to have found this site’ and not feel abandoned during this time of ” grief tsunami ” …. God’s grace to all ….

  8. kwelch0424  December 27, 2018 at 11:32 pm Reply

    This is my 23 y.o. son’s first heavenly Christmas. He died by suicide 12/31/17 and I’m reliving every moment of every day this past month up to his death. I knew soon after he died that the years to come would become a lonely struggle and it has. People forget you had a son and they are able to go on with their lives. I work in a very transient work environment and new staff come and go. You aren’t able to easily talk about your dead child with the same ease and acceptance as you would sharing and comparing everyday things about your living kids. Bring up the dead child and it’s a conversation killer and people just start avoiding you. So my ability to share David with others is very limited.

  9. Kirsty  December 26, 2018 at 7:45 pm Reply

    This is my first Christmas without my beloved dad. Although as I walk around the park and embrace the tree I had planted for him – I ponder on unwell relationships from the past and realise that I have probably always grieved him. Christmas was not for ‘ our family’ it was for spending with mates, and hiding as family was a source of pain. That saddens me now to reflect on that. But I know my dad was the best person he could be. Always. He was kind, and honest and made the most of what he had – he was loyal (often to a fault) and he loved his people and in fact all people. He loved his life and I am coming to accept that his life and death are simply none of my business. Every time I catch myself trying to analyse the whys and the hows and the oh too soons – I remind myself it simply is none of my business. Did I love him – Yes. Did I tell him that every time I could in the way that I could – Yes. OK then there is simply nothing more to be done. But grieve – pure and simple. He was dying at Christmas last year – and that pain was unlike anything I have ever felt nor would I wish it on my worst enemy. My body fell apart and I did not function. Who knew but the wounds are starting to heal. Slowly. I am not doing cartwheels. But there is air going in and out. I am putting one foot in front of the other and I have even caught up on my washing. That is my very own Christmas miracle. I have two kids and they keep me anchored here and now. I allow myself to feel what is and then to move on. Merry Christmas awesome dad. I love you and miss you. xxx Only forever…. xx

  10. Deb  December 24, 2018 at 4:01 pm Reply

    I too recently lost my husband, six weeks ago on Thursday. He was my best friend and husband of 32 years and my constant companion. I have to live with the guilt (true or not) that I should have gotten him to see a doctor sooner. He had been diagnosed with a blood cancer and had a bone marrow transplant which had been deemed successful but 13 months later he had the cancer full blown back and too late to do anything. I knew he was in pain and tried to get him in but he just waited until the next oncologist appointment which was a few months off. He was given 5 years or more to live initially and this cut him short at less than two. The guilt and loneliness are unbearable at times and I feel like I am an imposition on those around me since I can’t give up the notion I am at fault. My whole life will be different going forward since I devoted every spare minute to him. I had retired and we were about to start travelling full time when this happened. He was in the hospital for three months and the situation just got worse and worse. I stayed by his side the whole time.

    I have read the comments above and know others are going through the same journey. I appreciate that each one of your has shared your story, it helps.

  11. Claire Elliott  December 24, 2018 at 3:31 pm Reply

    The holiday season is difficult as I am living with a husband with late-stage Parkinson’s disease. We are alone and cannot do anything. My daughter lives far across the country and husband’s kids live across the state. They do not come to see us Christmas, but they all get together where they live. Pretty depressing to be so alone. His oldest daughter may come down for one night next week. They do not give us gifts (my daughter sent us books, plant and fruitcake), and I saw no reason to decorate. I have been my husband’s caregiver for over 10 years. Life is difficult at this stage–just take one day at a time. I am an only child so have no other relatives

  12. Catherine Roberts  December 23, 2018 at 2:43 pm Reply

    I am so glad to have found this through a post on the Sue Ryder website. I lost my husband suddenly 3 weeks ago and am numb with shock. I have put up a tree and decorated as i am having family for Christmas day and my Mike would have wanted me to but i feel guilty for doing it. It brings no joy. I can’t believe he has gone and i am still having to carry on. I will try to cut myself some slack as i feel my head is going to explode

    • Trish  June 21, 2019 at 10:12 pm Reply

      Hello, Catherine. I lost my husband three weeks ago tomorrow, very suddenly. My heart goes out to you and your family. Here is something I realized–I am operating on two very different levels, the level that gets up and eats and plans a memorial service and chooses the engraving on the headstone, and the subterranean level where I am so heartbroken it’s hard to breathe. I know these layers will shift and may soften, as they may have for you. But also know that however you grieve and remember Mike is the right way and that loving someone the way you did is also the right way. I hope your friends and family are there for you and that you, always always always, give yourself a break.

  13. Nina  December 23, 2018 at 8:58 am Reply

    This is my second holiday without my beloved TJ i miss him always but i no he wants me to live my best life because our life was good together.Being able to move through life with the loss of the people we love can be highly emotional most of the time, but the direction for us all is departure from this world and having the experience of the loss of my partner was new. I will miss him forever and someday people will miss me the same way. Live one moment at a time through your grief, but just keep living.

  14. Helen Wynn  December 21, 2018 at 9:09 pm Reply

    Great message. My husband died Dec. 20 and our anniversary was Dec. 23. I dread this time of year. But I am also angry at myself as it has been five years. Five years. My goodness, why cant I accept and move on. My brother lives with him as he had been dismissed by his wife six years ago because he has many physical problems. So, we are both in the pits and he is just recovering my yet another surgery and I recently lost my right ear hearing to an infection. Thanks for letting me write this out and God Bless “What’s My Grief” for giving us a forum for airing the truth and being able to share our grief.

    • Steve  December 26, 2018 at 12:31 am Reply

      Helen: Bless you as you stated your wedding anniversary was December 23 and how you don’t feel much joy this time of the year. Well, my anniversary is December 27. This is the second Christmas without my wife of 44 years. I put on a good face for family, but I am pretty much “blah” this time of year despite being around happy grandchildren, etc. Another person in the blog stated that she had quilt that she didn’t make her husband get checked earlier for his developing cancer. Well, I should have been more proactive in my wife’s health. Guilty? Yes. Sentence: Probation and education. One of the most powerful things said to me in answers of why this and why that and I should have and could have was: “If it was meant to be, then it would have been that way.”

  15. Pauline  December 21, 2018 at 2:43 pm Reply

    This is the second Christmas since my husband died – and yes, in most of England it’s referred to as Christmas, not just
    “the holidays “. The first – I don’t remember because I was numb. The second – I thought I was making some progress and didn’t mind the one day alone.

    But this year? All this crying and sadness is more than I expected. I’ve decorated some branches from the garden with his favourite tree hangings. I appreciate the Christmas cards from friends, most of whom were HIS friends. But I want the day to be over, the shops to return to normal merchandise and the radio stations to play ordinary music. I can hold things together on the day itself but why am I crying now?

  16. Cathryn A Reilly  December 21, 2018 at 1:02 pm Reply

    This is me! My 2nd Christmas without my oldest son . We raised his son together, he lived next door to me.. I had a falling out with my youngest daughter, who lived with me – she moved out.. I have NO interest in Christmas or any of its trappings, and have been thinking that something is terribly wrong with me.. I will be spending the holidays out of state with my grandson and his wife – my son’s son. On the other hand being “taken care of” and focusing on the true meaning of Christmas is a relief and a blessings. God bless you for reassuring me that what I am experiencing is not unusual. Merry Christmas! Cathy

  17. Cheryl Renaud  December 21, 2018 at 12:31 pm Reply

    Thank you for sharing this article. It is so nice to hear that the way I am feeling is normal and that I need to give myself permission to feel this way. I did not put a tree up or decorate this year and plan on spending the holidays quiet at home.

  18. Mary Andol  December 21, 2018 at 11:23 am Reply

    Eleanor and Litsa,
    You wrote an excellent article – so stop feeling guilty 🙂 I’m feeling different this year, my third holiday without my daughter. Better in some ways, yet the intensity of the emotional response to situations has, well, intensified. I appreciate your articles and will once again share on my FB page. Also I am in a closed group for parents like me. Although I am not allowed to share links, so far they haven’t stopped me from sharing the name What’s Your Grief. Always positive responses from those I have shared it with. Thank you. Levi’s Mom.

  19. Tina Derke  December 21, 2018 at 10:43 am Reply

    While this first holiday season without my beloved husband is excruciatingly painful, I am plugging along. I decorated for Xmas and put up a tree, but I couldn’t hang the stockings with his missing or send cheery holiday cards this year. I cry a lot and I miss him so, so much. While the pain is indescribable, I am dealing with the waves as they come and I have a lot of wonderful support. You can never be prepared for how this feels but it is life and we will all go through it.

  20. Jeri Weeks  December 21, 2018 at 10:11 am Reply

    Wow, this is right where I am this morning! Its amazing that God had me to check my email and read this post. I definitely needed to hear that I can “cut myself some slack” and that the daily activities that are required to be ‘present” in life – getting out of bed, showering (sometimes), putting on clothes and eating (sometimes) is quite a feat during this grief journey. Blessings to you for sharing!


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